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  • June 30, 2008
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Pizza in America

June 30, 2008

Americans spend $32 billion a year on pizza in restaurants, about half of it at chains such as Pizza Hut, Domino's, Papa John's and Little Caesars. But the other half of our pizza dollars go to independent pizzerias, most of them mom-and-pop shops, but now also places like Pizzeria Bianco and venues from famous chefs such as Nancy Silverton, whose partnership with Mario Batali produced Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles.
"We look at pizza the way a chef would look at a dish," says Silverton. "Nothing is reaching. Everything is about balance, texture and flavors that work together and have a homey, earthy feel to them."

...Even broader are the possible variations on the humble pie. Some make their dough with soft Italian 00 ("doppio zero") flour to create a soft-textured crust; others use bread flour. Some insist on a wood-fired oven for the fast baking and charring of the dough, to give it that smoky edge; others, including many New York pizzerias, use coal-fired ovens, where the heat source never comes in contact with the food. Some limit the toppings to traditional Italian ingredients; others have no boundaries.

Such are the issues that spark hot debate among pizza chefs and aficionados. I recently visited some of the most dedicated pizza makers in the United States to have them demonstrate what makes their pizza special. All of them believe they have found the route to pizza nirvana.

Pizza originated in the Mediterranean region more than 2,000 years ago as a flatbread baked on stone. The Neapolitans perfected what we call pizza today, finally arriving at a crust that remained soft from its thin center to puffy rim, baked in a wood-fired oven. Naples' classic pizza is the Margherita, which tops the dough with a thin smear of tomato sauce, a scattering of fresh mozzarella slices or cubes, whole or torn basil leaves and a drizzle of olive oil.

At pizzerias in Naples such as L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele and Trianon da Ciro, Neapolitans eat their uncut 12-inch pizza hot from the oven with a knife and fork. But since Lombardi's in New York first introduced pizza to the United States at the turn of the 20th century, Americans have made the pies bigger, added more toppings and cooked them in different types of ovens, creating firmer textures to carry the load of pepperoni, mushrooms, peppers and other ingredients that are completely foreign to traditional Neapolitan pizzas. These pizzas are better suited for being cut into wedges and eaten out of hand.
The pizza bug started biting big-name chefs around 1980, after Alice Waters made pizza the cornerstone of her then-new café upstairs from her Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Calif. Today, Batali in New York, Silverton in Los Angeles, Craig Stoll in San Francisco and Tom Douglas in Seattle figure among those who have added pizzerias to their roster of high-profile restaurants.

Craig and Anne Stoll hatched the idea for their pizzeria during a trip to Naples. Anne recalls that as they ate at da Michele, she said to Craig, "If we can make this, people will come from all over." But when they built their little Pizzeria Delfina next door to Delfina, their highly regarded Italian restaurant in San Francisco, they found that it was difficult to replicate tradition.

Craig and his chef, Anthony Strong, don't bake the pizzas in a wood-fired oven—they got a mechanic to amp up the temperature a bit on a standard steel oven. "We call it Naples meets New York," says Strong.

Strong's background was in French cuisine until he got to Delfina. The Stolls sent him to work in kitchens in Italy to learn firsthand what the food was all about. "I was blown away," he says. "The pizza there might have just one or two leaves of basil. The cheese melts just the right way. The places I saw, they didn't want anything to interfere with the purity of the flavors."

Delfina's pizzas take about four minutes to bake. To get a moist texture similar to what Strong experienced in Italy, he has his pizza makers drizzle water from beer bottles over the pies about a minute before they come out of the oven.

For variety, Craig and Strong like to turn pasta dishes into pizzas. "We'll put the ingredients for Amatriciana or puttanesca [sauce] on a pizza," says Strong. A drizzle of fresh cream replaces the mozzarella on the panna pizza, something Strong saw at Trianon in Naples. It's a haunting, delicate touch, and a post-bake topping of shaved Parmigiano strips adds a different cheese note and texture.

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